The Secret History of “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board”
Emily Temple on Samuel Pepys and Parlor Games for Plague Times
All the best slumber parties come complete with a confession or two. Here’s one of mine: I have never ever actually played “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.” This despite being the type of eighth grader who shoplifted spell books from my local Barnes & Noble and then proceeded to cast spells—once or twice successfully, I swear—in my parents’ attic, with my two best friends. But levitation? Never.
Even so, I know exactly how to play “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.” If you’re reading this, you probably do too. Call it cultural osmosis. Or just gossip, maybe. The ritual is a ubiquitous classic of American slumber parties, particularly though not exclusively for girls, and forever immortalized in The Craft in the 90s (“What’s going on in here? Are you girls getting high?”), and often referenced as a stand-in for the half-spooky, half-silly machinations of adolescence. I’ve heard there’s even a show on Hulu called Light as a Feather and produced by Kelsey Grammer (another 90s immortal), but it’s not supposed to be very good. Alas.
If you need a refresher (you don’t), the object of the exercise is to ritually levitate one of your friends. (Just normal girl stuff, you know?) The particulars of the game vary slightly depending on the house and the participants, but usually it goes like this:
1. Someone is chosen to die.
2. The chosen one lies on the floor, her arms crossed over her chest. Her friends surround her.
3. Everyone puts two fingers under the chosen one. They all try to lift. There is much giggling. They fail; she is too heavy.
4. The leader calls for silence. Maybe she lights some candles. She begins some kind of ritual chant, often call and response. The chants vary; one style goes like this: “She’s looking pale. (She’s looking pale.) / She’s looking worse. (She’s looking worse.) / She’s dying. (She’s dying.) / She’s dead. (She’s dead.) / Light as a feather, stiff as a board. (Light as a feather, stiff as a board.)”
5. “Light as a feather, stiff as a board” is then repeated, over in over, in unison, as all the girls attempt the levitation again.
6. This time, like magic, the “dead” girl rises off the floor.
I shouldn’t have to explain to you why, for a certain kind of slumber partier, this is much preferable to calling boys and hanging up. (Though one obviously doesn’t preclude the other. In my experience, girls can easily feel creepy and sexy at the same time.) But where did this odd ritual actually come from?
Folk historians aren’t certain of the origins, but they do know that it’s been around for hundreds of years. The earliest known recorded reference to it can be found in The Diary of Samuel Pepys, with which you are no doubt familiar if you ever had to take a class on the Restoration. In his entry for July 31, 1665, Pepys (pronounced “peeps,” a true fact I will never get over) recounts a story told to him by one Mr. Brisband, “a good scholar and sober man,” as the two were “speaking of enchantments and spells.” Brisband’s contribution to their collection was this incantation, which he encountered in Bourdeax:
Voici un corps mort,
Raide comme un bâton,
Froid comme marber,
Léger comme un esprit,
Levons te au nom de Jesus Christ.
Here lies a dead body,
Stiff as a stick,
Cold as marble
Light as a spirit,
Rise in the name of Jesus Christ.
Pepys writes: “[Brisband] saw four little girls, very young ones, all kneeling, each of them, upon one knee; and one begun the first line, whispering in the ear of the next, and the second to the third, and the third to the fourth, and she to the first. Then the first began the second line, and so round quite through, and, putting each one finger only to a boy that lay flat upon his back on the ground, as if he was dead; at the end of the words, they did with their four fingers raise this boy as high as they could reach.”
Brisband reports that he figured it must be a trick, and challenged the girls in their magic, bidding the boy move aside for “the cook of the house, a very lusty fellow,” but much to his surprise, the little girls raised him up “in just the same manner.”
“This is one of the strangest things I ever heard,” Pepys writes, “but he tells it me of his own knowledge, and I do heartily believe it to be true. I enquired of him whether they were Protestant or Catholic girls; and he told me they were Protestant, which made it the more strange to me.” Catholics, of course, being somewhat more invested in miracles. (Which is not to mention that one of the most famous levitators of legend was himself a Catholic saint, Saint Joseph of Cupertino—though Pepys probably didn’t know about him; Saint Joe died in 1663 and wasn’t canonized until nearly a hundred years later, when everyone in this story was already dead.)
Of course, “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” isn’t true levitation: it’s simple physics. The lift doesn’t work on the first try because everyone is giggling and uncoordinated; it only works when each member of the group is lifting at the exact same time, distributing the weight equally. A human body might seem like a heavy thing to lift with two fingers apiece, even if you have four people lifting, but think about it: your fingers are pretty strong. The world record for the heaviest deadlift with the pinkie finger is 242 lbs. Pinkie pullups are also a thing. That said, all the coordination in the world isn’t going to get your friend to stay up in the air of her own accord like Rochelle does in The Craft. You’re going to need a little extra oomph for that. (Can I interest you in this book on Manon?)
The footnotes of my edition of Pepys’s diary explain that the levitation ritual described by Brisband was “especially popular during times of plague outbreak,” which makes a certain kind of sense. 1665, the year of Pepys’ diary entry, was also the year of the Great Plague in London; this would be the last major plague outbreak in Europe, though Pepys could not have known it at the time. By the time of his writing, the plague had already killed millions of people, including a million in France, where Brisband witnessed the girls playing, between 1628 and 1631. And if children are suddenly surrounded by death, it’s no surprise it would sneak into their games. To us, the game might feel spooky, but for them, it could have been existentially reassuring: look, our friend is dead, but we can make her rise again.
However, in her essay “Levitation Revisited” (2008), folk historian Elizabeth Tucker writes that there are actually no clear records of how children responded to the plague, and no evidence that tells us whether the increasing awareness of death that they must have had during this time ever explicitly appeared in their games. That said, she writes,
[W]e should note Sylvia Ann Grider’s point that “images of burials of corpses wrapped in winding sheets” were familiar to young survivors of the plague and that the contemporary image of a ghost in a white sheet may have originated during the plague years. In Once Upon a Virus (2004), Diane E. Goldstein describes a Canadian child in the midst of a game of tag saying “Tag, you’ve got AIDS.” This description, as well as the line “Barney died from HIV” in children’s song parodies of the early 1990s, shows how easily children’s concerns about epidemics become part of their games and songs.
In fact, Tucker argues that while “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” may seem a silly/spooky diversion on its surface, it has a much greater symbolic resonance. The ritualistic storytelling (“she is dead,” etc.) suggests that the goal of the “game” is not just levitation, but also resurrection. This would enter it into a larger tradition of children’s re-enactments of death rituals, of which there are many—children, of course, being obsessed both by discrete rituals and by copying adults. Here, the participants are taking a “dead” body and literally raising it from the “grave.” It’s not at all hard to imagine why it might have been popular during plague times.
Taken symbolically, “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” occupies a liminal space between life and death, but this is only one of its many liminalities: it’s mostly played by girls on the cusp of sexuality and teenage-hood, often in a space where most of the participants are temporary guests. It questions the borders not just between life and death, but also between magic and banality, between the serious and the childish, between the power of the individual and the power of the group. For modern girls, Tucker tells us, the symbolic importance of the “raising” isn’t just about resurrection, but also a kind of personal development, as the girls who play are typically in the process moving “up” from childhood to adulthood. With this ritual and others like it, she writes, “preadolescent girls are experimenting with their own power to regulate the intriguing, sometimes threatening awareness of their own development.”
These days, of course, that power, like so many others, is flexed in digital spaces. In Children’s Folklore: A Handbook, Tucker also points out how YouTube and internet culture have changed the way “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” and other exploratory childhood rituals are disseminated. Since the seventeenth century (at least), she writes, “the childhood underground—a network of children that transmits children’s folklore, with creative variations—has kept levitation alive. For many years, few adults noticed children lifting each other late at night, but now levitation belongs to the constantly changing stream of video culture.”
While Tucker argues that the prevalence of the ritual online is a marker of its continued relevance, for me there’s something a little sad in its transition to the digital world. There’s a hollowness in it. When I was young, there was no way to verify these kinds of legends—the one that really freaked me out was Bloody Mary—you had to actually try them. And sure, maybe you didn’t really believe that if you said “Bloody Mary” three times in the bathroom mirror she would appear, but there was room for doubt, for experimentation. There was room for magic. There’s much less room for all of that if you can see that a thousand other kids have done the same thing on YouTube.
When my friends and I did our spells with our shoplifted books, it wasn’t because we were in the middle of a plague. (I wonder what kinds of children’s games will come out of the coronavirus pandemic? Probably they’ll have more to do with being trapped at home for months on end.) But it was because we’d found ourselves inside our own miniature apocalypse: a time when we were overwhelmed by both a growing knowledge of the world and a realization of our own powerlessness inside of it. (Yes, I’m talking about the eighth grade.) We wanted to see if we could change the world. So we did a spell to make it rain. (It worked, or maybe it was a coincidence.) We did a spell to make our math teacher disappear. (She took a sick day about three weeks later, so we counted that one too.) But mostly what we did was sit in the dusty attic and reaffirm our real power: our connection to one another. Those two girls I did spells with? I still count them among my best friends today. It could be another coincidence, but I doubt it.
 Also possibly in the 2020s. Last week, the trailer for The Craft: Legacy, which appears to be both a remake and a sequel (?) hit the internet, to general confusion and gentle anticipation. Will I watch it? Yes. Do I have high hopes? Well, I’ll hope to be surprised.